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Early on in the Human Genome Project, scientists hoped the genome could be read like a cookbook for an individual’s health—and possibly for our offsprings’ health as well. And indeed, scientists have found some recipes, but they’ve also learned that more ingredients than an orderly series of genes come into play.
Genes, environment, and regulatory factors all work together to influence our bodies, our health, and what we pass on to the next generation. Our DNA is wrapped tightly into a chemical blanket—the chromatin—that winds itself up into our chromosomes. Within that structure, various controls layer onto the DNA sequence and guide its expression like a series of express lanes, traffic lights, and “do not code” signals. In “imprinting,” the sex of the parent transmitting a gene can change the way it operates. In processes called “methylation” and “acetylation,” a network of chemicals lock in and turn up or down expression of protein-coding genes. “Gene silencing” refers to a means by which small RNAs block the work of their relatives—those RNA molecules that translate DNA code into proteins. All these mechanisms fall under the term “epigenetics,” stable controls inside of the cell but outside of the DNA that often are passed on to the next generation.
Age and environment—including the kinds of foods our parents ate and the way we were cared for while young—can change the signals on our epigenome and then be passed on to our next generation. Researchers are exploring the epigenome for clues that might help explain and treat complex diseases such as cancer, schizophrenia, and autism.